Methinks something is missing here

Perhaps this miffed me a bit, since I wrote my column this week on a related topic (hooked to an amazing document [10-page PDF] from a trinity of Democratic Party strategists). But read this new Los Angeles Times story by reporter Maura Reynolds and see if you can think of one or two specific words, or issues, that have been omitted.

OK, it refers to one of the big missing words in an indirect way. I’ll grant that. But the Democrats are trying to find ways to avoid speaking certain words. This article is cut from that set of talking points.

The Times speaks: “No miracles allowed”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

This is, of course, the famous credo used time and time again by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. What has always fascinated me about this statement is its open use of religious — even creedal — form and its willingness to launch beyond the rules of science and into a kind of anti-theology.

How, in a lab, can one prove under the rules of science that the material world is all there is? How does one run scientific experiments in the past? And how in the world does one claim to be able to test the future?

Sagan knew what he was doing, of course. I had a chance to ask him about it. He knew his famous Cosmos series was making an argument that the scientific evidence backed up these sweeping truth claims that carried him far outside the rules of research. He believed he had the facts on his side and, thus, he was willing to make a leap of faith from facts to a larger philosophy. Then he became an evangelist for this philosophical point of view.

I was reminded of Sagan while reading the massive New York Times series on how the priesthood of modern science is responding to the rebels gathered under the banner of Intelligent Design. Click here to go to a clearinghouse page for all of the Gray Lady’s efforts on this issue in the recent past.

Clearly we are in the midst of a blitz. Cages have been rattled.

As I have stated before, I try to stay on the fringes of this issue because I have so many close friends who are at the heart of it. So take what I say here with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that the scope of this Times series is so large that it would take days to respond to it point by point.

On the whole, I think it is a rather mixed bag. There is some give and take by the most intelligent voices on each side of the debate and that is a good thing. I am sure the powers that be in the newsroom believe it is a totally balanced package. For example, the reports do stress that the ID leaders are, if anything, trying to increase the amount of attention evolution is given in the classroom, not ban the theory. They simply want students exposed to the debates that are already taking place within the scientific community. They also do not think the religious implications of these debates — on either side of the table — should be included in public classrooms. The ID leaders want this to be a scientific discussion. However, this would apply to Darwinian philosophy as well as to deism or theism.

I digress. There are times in the Times, however, when it is clear that the scientific arguments at the heart of the story simply cannot be covered in depth in a newspaper series. When this happens, the Times uses this formula: The controversial religious people make this claim. The real scientists make this response, based on facts. That’s that. There is no need to let the critics respond to their critics.

At one key moment, reporter Jodi Wilgoren even slips into the old “fundamentalist” trap, violating logic, the facts and The Associated Press Stylebook all at the same time. Here is the context, speaking of the ID leaders:

Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

“They’re interested in the same things I’m interested in — no one else is,” Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. “What I’m doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It’s not something a ‘scientist’ is supposed to do.” Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

What does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context, when speaking of a group that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a dozen other faith traditions? Why use this word? Is the goal to underline a basic assumption that one side uses faith and the other intellect?

Let me conclude by returning to Sagan. The various Times writers seem to glimpse, every now and then, the larger fact that Darwinian orthodoxy makes truth claims that are based on claims of logic as well as laboratory results. What they seem to miss is that the Intelligent Design people want to use the same sequence as Sagan. They believe that laboratory evidence and logic point to an unknown designer — something that cannot be tested in a lab by science. But what they also want people to note is that the ultimate claim made by many in the Darwinian priesthood also cannot be tested.

In academic circles, evolution has been defined as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

The controversy centers on the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” That is the heart of this story. These are the words that Sagan and others cannot test in a laboratory, yet many still believe they are at the heart of all legitimate science. For, you see, any involvement whatsoever by a Divine Person — any meaningful role for a Creator — is called a miracle. That is bad. Millions and millions of taxpayers, representing (cue: Sagan voice) billions and billions of tax dollars, must be shown the light.

Thus, the Times notes:

. . . (M)ainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Thus, one side gets to use the equation — science, logic, philosophy — but the other side does not. One side gets to make leaps of faith in the public square, but the other side does not. Rules are rules.

Dr. Sagan would be proud.

P.S. For a lively discussion of the terms that journalists are tossing about in this coverage, click here for a visit with William Safire.

Attention Dobson, Colson, et al.

OK, I am confused and I predict that my confusion is shared by many other Christians, Jews, moderate Muslims, freedom-loving secularists and who knows who else.

Here is the crunch section of a Washington Post story today on Islam-and-oil battles in Iraq right now as the new constitution comes down to the wire and then over the wire into double overtime.

The draft constitution submitted Monday stipulates that Iraq is an Islamic state and that no law can contradict the principles of Islam, negotiators confirmed. Opponents have charged that the latter provision would subject Iraqis to rule by religious edicts of individual clerics or sects.

The opponents also said women would lose gains they made during Hussein’s rule, when they were guaranteed equal rights under civil law in matters including marriage, divorce and inheritance. The draft constitution says individuals can choose to have family matters decided by either religious or civil law.

Supporters say a separate bill of rights would protect women, and provisions of the constitution say no law can contradict democracy or that bill of rights.

So laws cannot contradict Islam, or democracy (I assume this means strict majority rule) or the new bill of rights (another product of democracy and majority rule). So in this majority-rule equation, what happens to the legal rights of women and religious minorities? I have not seen, in the MSM coverage, any mention of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Check out Article 18 if you want to see some really controversial, old-fashioned liberal language.

So I have questions:

What are the conservative Christian supporters of this White House thinking right now? What are they thinking about the war and this possible outcome? Are they getting angry? Have I missed an update on that? Check out this thread over at Open Book. Also, shouldn’t we be hearing more about this issue from human-rights activists on the left?

This could be one of those times when the sanctuaries in the red and the blue zip codes have just cause to be mad about the same thing at the same time. Meanwhile, keep one eye on the old-fashioned liberals — that often makes them conservatives today — at Freedom House.

Flying the flag at World Youth Day

050821 WYD2005 09 sOne of our favorite topics to whine about here at GetReligion is the shameful job that some American newspapers do of displaying the work of their religion-beat specialists.

All over the place — think Denver, Chicago and Orlando for starters — there are talented and committed Godbeat scribes whose editors do next to nothing to help WWW-era readers find their work. Want to find fashion, autos, health or weather? That’s easy. Religion coverage? That is often next to impossible. The Los Angeles Times recently seemed to go out of its way to make it harder to find this beat. You think I am joking? Check this out.

One of the best of the hidden talents is Ann Rodgers in Pittsburgh. In the midst of the waves of “Catholic Woodstock” and “Is Benedict XVI as charismatic as that John Paul II man that we admire now that he is gone?” coverage, she files this highly symbolic lead — local angle, even — with a World Youth Day dateline:

After nearly a week of being very low-key about their nationality, a group of young Catholics from the South Hills began flying the stars and stripes yesterday. . . .

All pilgrims from the United States had been warned not to display their flag because it might make them targets of political hatred. Many carried state flags — the bear of California was everywhere. The South Hills group had carried a Steelers pennant to help them find each other in crowds where they could easily become separated.

But all week they had seen thousands of people from lands as diverse as Tahiti and Sweden proudly displaying their national colors. They had spotted a few American groups also flying large flags, with no apparent ill effects.

We could wish this story wasn’t timely, but it is.

Any other overlooked World Youth Day stories out there that GetReligion readers want to nominate for special attention?

tmatt, the Kurds and secularism

kurdflag2I guess anything can happen in the age of the WWW. Take a look at this Kurdish essay and tell me: Am I on the side of a more secular approach to Islam or not? Or am I being quoted to back the Islamists?

The decline of secularism can be seen as a global phenomenon, more than an Arab one, because the Arab world has refused all secular aspects, whether in religion or customs. When Samuel Huntington talked about the “clash of civilizations”, he gave priority to factors of culture and religion over secularist ones in reshaping relations among different nations. Today, secularism doesn’t sell in the marketplace. As American religious affairs columnist Terry Mattingly noted, “people hunger for spirituality, miracles and a sense of mystery . . . but the core question remains: should believers defend eternal truths or follow their hearts?”

At least the Kurdistan Regional Government quoted one of my more symbolic columns. Click here to see the context for the quote in my 10th anniversary column.

Yet another painful Calvary Chapel story

When I first saw this story, I blanked out and said to myself, “Surely this must be a follow-up story on that San Bernardino Sun item that Ted Olsen at the Christianity Today blog wrote up. It must be strange for the Los Angeles Times to have to chase a story like that.”

Then I noticed that the names were all different, even though some of the facts and themes about the Calvary Chapel world seemed somewhat similar. This is, in fact, a whole new story full of all kinds of painful twists and turns for the charismatic superstar Chuck Smith and the 1,100 or so independent congregations that grew out of his Jesus People revivals so long ago in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

So is there is some kind of virus making the rounds these days in the world of hyper-independent charismatic superchurches in Southern California? What is the bigger story here, something deeper than all the painful human details of “he said,” “they said,” “he denied”?

Here is where reporters Roy Rivenburg (a friend of mine, I should note) and Donna Horowitz begin to focus on a larger question: What kind of oversight exists in all of these independent congregations, which operate from sea to shining sea as one of the most powerful change elements in modern American Protestantism? Who is supposed to come to the aid of Pastor Joe Sabolick and his estranged older brother, Pastor George Sabolick, and all of the sheep who are loyal to one or the other? Who is in charge?

That would seem to be the police, the lawyers and, like it or not, Chuck Smith. Is that the reality woven into this sad tale?

. . . Smith didn’t let his protege entirely off the hook. Sabolick showed “perhaps a carelessness in finances,” Smith said. He cited two examples: In one, Sabolick used a church credit card to buy boots and clothes for a visiting Australian singer whose shoes were held together with duct tape.

In another, while trying to help a young girl, he “gave her things and it was misinterpreted as a romantic gesture. Joe is a very giving person, but you’ve got to keep better records on spending.”

Sabolick’s touchy-feely manner didn’t help, Smith said. When asked if he advised Sabolick to curb displays of physical affection, Smith replied: “Oh my, yes. Billy Graham says don’t touch the money and don’t touch the girls.”

But Smith saw no reason to bar Sabolick from the ministry. In recent weeks, the Calvary patriarch has tried to broker a settlement of the lawsuit. The only sticking point Smith sees is calculating how much the Laguna church owes Sabolick for severance pay and unreturned personal items versus how much Joe owes the church for funds borrowed for “some projects,” Smith said.

But hammering out a compromise might not be so simple, despite Smith’s hopes.

Millions of Americans love their totally independent congregations that form around charismatic leaders who can unleash fire in the pulpit. But if things go wrong, what then? This is the upside-down, mirror-image story to the Roman Catholic scandals, where people are turning up the heat — rightly so — on the bishops. Well, what do you do when you have no bishops?

Once more into the “religion test” gap

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times has a helpful commentary up today, returning to the issue of whether Judge John G. Roberts Jr. has to shed his Catholic beliefs in order to enter the sacred doors of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two passages stand out for me, the first a chunk of content-analysis that gives a hint of just how nervous many newspaper people are about this whole “religion test” issue:

Friday, in reporting the contents of the most recently released cache of documents from the young Roberts’ service as a legal advisor to President Reagan, the Washington Post chose to emphasize his opposition to legally expanding women’s rights. At one point, the Post noted in its opening paragraph, Roberts wrote a memo wondering “whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good.” The phrase, “common good,” is a bedrock fixture of Catholic social thinking. So, is the sentiment an expression of his religious faith?

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times’ reporters looked at the same memoranda and felt they portrayed Roberts as a remarkably steadfast opponent of commercializing or in any way cheapening the presidency, even when the pressure to do so came from Reagan’s friends. At one point, Roberts urged deletion from a campaign speech of a line that called the United States “the greatest nation God ever created.” The young lawyer dryly noted, “According to Genesis, God creates things like the heavens and the earth, and the birds and the fishes, but not nations.” In our piety-besotted times, that common sense seems a breath of fresh air. Was it a consequence of his Catholic faith?

The missing link here, of course, is that there is intellectual content to the Christian faith and it has, like it or not, had a major impact on Western (and Eastern) culture. So Civil Rights leaders (and junior senators from Illinois) can quote the Bible left and right but judges cannot?

But all of this is, really, beside the point. What reporters want to know is whether this Catholic layman is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. They want to know if he is a Scalia Catholic or a Kennedy Catholic. They want to know if he is SAFE.

Dr. James Dobson and his camp, of course, want to know precisely the same thing. Only one side’s good is the other’s bad.

So what about the Vatican? Rutten wades into this, briefly. It is clear that Catholics are allowed to be strategic in their thinking. They are allowed to choose the lesser of evils.

But it is also clear what the church believes is evil. This whole battle, you see, is over whether it is even possible — under Roe — to compromise on abortion at all. Will a strict abortion-on-demand regime hold?

The issue is whether Roberts is the man who casts a vote that allows compromise to begin. Here is Rutten again:

UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge, who writes about Catholic social thought with great precision, recently noted that the Vatican document most relevant to the questions that have arisen concerning Roberts is its “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” When it comes to both the political and judicial spheres, Bainbridge wrote in his blog (, “the Church distinguishes between formal and material cooperation with evil.”

Formal cooperation, as the doctrinal note defines it, occurs when a person “gives consent to the evil action of another (the actor). Here the cooperator shares the same intention as the actor.” Material cooperation occurs when “a cooperator performs an action that itself is not evil, but in so doing helps the actor perform another evil action. The moral quality of material cooperation depends upon how close the act of the cooperator is to the evil action, and whether there is a proportionate reason for performing the action.”

A little more than a year ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, elaborated on the note by writing, “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

As Bainbridge — whose personal politics are conservative, generally Republican — wrote, “Judicial decision making, even with respect to issues like abortion and euthanasia that raise moral questions under Church teaching, does not per se constitute formal cooperation with evil.”

So here is the question: Is the Vatican more flexible on the issue of abortion, more interested in compromise, than American newspapers?

A pastor in the lobby of hell

So you are the pastor of an ordinary, middle-of-the-road mainline church in the heart of flyover America.

You face the tough issues of life, both public and private. You know many of the secret hopes and terrors of ordinary people, the kinds of everyday challenges that do not make headlines. You help people search for answers.

Then, in a shattering blitz of headlines and camera crews, you find yourself reading stories — this is from — such as the following about the BTK murderer, a man that you thought of as a leader in your quiet flock.

Film at 11. And here is the news:

Sgt. Tom Lee testified Rader told him that after strangling his 53-year-old neighbor, Marine Hedge, in her home on April 27, 1985, he took her body to his church where he took photographs of her in bondage positions. Rader dumped the body in a remote ditch.

Lee said Rader told investigators he took the body to the church to “have his way with her” — to fulfill his sexual fantasies.

Rader had left black plastic sheets and other material at the church in anticipation of the killing.

“He advised to me that she was going to the church alive or dead — either way,” Lee said.

That is just the tip of this hellish iceberg.

So you are the pastor at this scene, sitting in that courtroom with the families — on both sides of the terror. You hear the testimony. You hear the verdict. What are you thinking? What are you praying? What questions have you silently screamed at the heavens in recent weeks?

There’s a feature story in there, right? That’s the story that Deb Gruver went after for The Wichita Eagle, writing about Pastor Michael Clark. For starters, he considered majoring in criminology in college. He ended up wrestling with good and evil in another arena, after working as both a teacher and in real estate. Seminary did not prepare him for this.

Gruver has some of the human details. Still, I found myself wanting more. This pastor has been stuck in the foyer of hell and he has to be asking some questions. We see glimpses, but that is all.

Clark has taken some criticism for continuing to minister to Rader. Some have questioned how a church could support a serial killer. Clark has tried to meet with Rader about two times a week. Their most recent meeting was Tuesday morning. He won’t divulge what they talk about it, but he says Rader has shown remorse for his crimes.

Clark says it’s not his job to forgive Rader. That’s God’s job.

“I can guide him to the point where he asks God for forgiveness,” he said.

The experience, Clark says, has helped him grow.

“It never, ever made me question my faith,” he said. “Never. In spite of all the pain and suffering, I still have come to understand that God is being good.

“We say God is the truth,” the minister continues. “I can tell you right now I’ve come to understand that concept in a whole different way. . . . I’ve gotten in touch with evil in a whole different way.”

This is the kind of story that makes people sweat on the theological left and the right. Remember when the unthinkable happened and Jeffrey Dahmer became a born-again Christian and then, while the cynics moaned, actually died trying to protect another man from being beaten in prison? This case could follow a similar path.

Does Rader deserve heaven or hell? The liberal answer is that everyone is going to heaven. For many, that isn’t a comforting answer in this case. But what about the other side of the coin? What if Rader repents? Then the most conservative of Christians has to say that he is bound for heaven. That’s the Good News. But how many people in Wichita want to hear about that doctrine, right now?

I predict that Pastor Clark has given this issue some thought.